Between June of 1940 and May of 1945, bombing from the second World War destroyed half a million homes across France, and damaged another million. The bombs, over 600,000 tons of them, were dropped by Allied planes in a valiant effort to free the country from Axis occupation, and it was therefore of little consequence that some of those bombs happened to fall upon 60,000 French heads.
When Pietro Baptiste Giavaldi invented, or more accurately, discovered the miracle of exploding paper, these numbers hardly crossed his mind, despite the fact that he was, at that very moment, living in a house that had only recently been restored.
The little farmhouse he rented was humble but chic, with yellow flowers in its window pots and a white fence around the yard, as neat as a Parisian woman’s nails. Not long ago, it had been a bombed out hole in the ground. It hadn’t seen the last coat of paint on its trim until 1973, a full twenty-nine years after an Allied bomb devoured the end of the street.
It wasn’t until 1986 that Pietro came across his discovery. He was working in the little shop behind the house, as he often did. It was a warm night; the kind that slips by without notice until you find yourself in the bare hours of morning, your breath stained with nicotine and coffee. It was the hour when paints were most likely to spill, when chisels were most likely to slip, when artists were most likely to have either a stroke, or a stroke of genius.
Pietro, who had always considered himself an artist, even when parents, professors, romantic partners, and total strangers had told him that his work lacked merit, and that he might be better suited for another career—though it was hard to say exactly what career that was—found himself unexpectedly in the second camp.
It began with the ashes of a neglected cigarette. The windows of the shop blew outward with the rupture, and a dozen neighbors within four blocks sat up in bed and wondered whether they’d heard thunder or a gunshot.
It ended—and by it, I mean the fire—with a pitcher of water, thankfully full and close at hand, before anyone saw the glow and called for help.
The explosion had cost Pietro his eyebrows and some of his fingerprints, and he’d had to replace the broken windows in his shop. But after months of hard work, and it was the hardest work he’d ever done, he’d finally stabilized his creation.
Now, it was safe. Now, he could reproduce it. Now, at least on some scale, he could mass-produce it. And now, well…there was simply no telling what would happen next.
He’d never been the sort of man to devote much time to contemplating irony, or the consequences of his actions, and now wasn’t the time to start. He wasn’t a scientist. He wasn’t a chemical engineer, nor a munitions expert. He was an artist, and an artist on the verge of a fortune. That meant there was work to be done.
His incredible invention was as effective as it was subtle. He could disguise his paper as any other paper, and went to great lengths to prove it. He printed up newspapers made entirely of his own product, the explosive capabilities of which, he accurately surmised, could have leveled a hotel. He slipped a single sheet of explosive paper into a notebook for a smaller, more intimate impact, perhaps slipped into a coat pocket.
He recreated money with it—carefully, of course. The last thing he needed was the French authorities finding out what he was up to, but it wasn’t like he was going to spend it. One single euro could blow a person in half, or take out a car if it was well placed.
Then he got creative. He pictured posters hung up on telephone poles, or bulletin boards transformed effortlessly into land-mines. He pictured playfully crafted origami birds transformed into agents of sudden and decisive destruction. Cigarette papers. Bookmarks. Some he made in prototype, if only to marvel at the cleverness, at the dastardly brilliance of them.
Obviously, there were all sorts of beneficial ways he figured it could be used. Controlled demolition, for one. Perhaps, if he were able to fine-tune the ratios of the ingredients, he could even propose a self-cauterizing bandage. It could save lives, maybe, not to mention resources and money.
But really, where would the thanks be in that? Big medical equipment companies didn’t care about efficiency. Governments wouldn’t care about conserving resources.
All they’d care about, he knew, was the fact that a piece of paper the size of a postage stamp could now kill a person. Any person. Anywhere. Wrap a present in it, deliver it to a foreign dignitary for Christmas—forensics would show that the package contained nothing out of the ordinary. Forensics wouldn’t even know that such a thing existed.
And odds are, nobody would know that he existed, either. What was the purpose of an inventor once the invention was got? They’d make him disappear. It was the Russians that scared him most, but it could be anyone—the Americans, or the French, even the Italians.
The facts were these: with two bumper stickers, Pietro could take the door off a safe. There were people who would pay for that. People with pockets that went on forever. And if he played his cards right, there were people who’d protect him, too. There were people in the world, after all, who would understand exactly how valuable he was. What a resource. What an artist.
That is exactly what he was counting on when he sent out his samples.
He packaged them with care and thorough instructions, along with a calling card that he had made in an artisan stationary shop, printed on the most expensive cardstock he could find. What else, from the man who just reinvented paper? He came up with half a dozen witty catchphrases about the pen and the sword, one of which he included on his business card, which read:
To hell with the pen!
He liked the word ‘Craftsman.’ It spoke volumes, and resonated where artist might have failed. He was a man with a purpose, with a trade. And men with a trade have something to barter.
He sent samples to crime families, to syndicates and hitmen and private security services and anti-government organizations. Not much at all, just enough to blow up, say, a single car. Enough to whet an appetite. Enough to show that he really could do what he said he could.
Almost immediately, responses flooded in. He wasn’t stupid enough, of course, to include a return address. He took out a PO box in Paris under the name G. Pavarotti, and hired a courier service (with a reputation for discretion) to bring him any mail once every two weeks, and to do it by the least conspicuous route.
This was only a preliminary measure. In the future, of course, he would have to improve his security. But in the future, he would most assuredly have the means to do so. He could move out of the little farmhouse and into a proper house, somewhere secluded. Somewhere with a proper laboratory and a fully functioning printing press, with guards, and cameras, and premium coffee.
One particular Italian family was interested in procuring as much of his product as possible, and they were very deeply interested in its versatility. So Pietro, who was by now prolific in the art of paper, had to write a manual.
It was easy to read and right to the point, divided into three sections: electronic detonation, direct incendiary detonation (say, with a match), or most recently, and most impressively, it could be detonated by applying a certain amount of pressure.
He’d perfected the last method using mousetraps, but by now he was quite confident in its consistency. All you had to do was insert one page of Giavaldi’s Combustable Parchment—or, Giavaldi’s Miraculous Paper?—he was still working on a name—into a book, and then slam the book shut. The result was an explosion the size of a hand-grenade.
So imagine if every page in the book was made out of Nouveau Papier—no, dammit, that wasn’t right either. He’d work on the name.
He was in the middle of typing out details on proper storage implementation—for instance, you really shouldn’t store heat-ignition combustable with force-ignition combustibles, because the last thing anybody wanted was a domino-effect—when he heard the doorbell ring.
As a security measure, he’d wired the doorbell to ring in his shop as well as the little house, which he used less and less these days. He pushed himself up and brushed himself off and then crossed the yard to the back door in his slippers, lighting a cigarette on the way. Smoking was for the house nowadays, not the shop.
The doorbell rang again as he reached it. “J’arrive, j’arrive!” he mumbled, expecting to see the milkman.
Really, he shouldn’t have been expecting the milkman. Or the postman, for that matter, or a neighbor. But he was. Perhaps he’d begun to feel as though leaving off his return address and full name were enough to protect him. He never expected to correspond with anyone tête-à-tête, not if things went according to plan.
And he certainly wasn’t expecting to find a pistol pointed at his nose when the door swung open.
He stepped backwards in shock and two men stepped in after him. Two more men slipped in through the back. The tiny farmhouse, which hadn’t seen a single visitor since Pietro took up residence there, was suddenly crowded with tailored blazers and pistols.
Pietro thrust his hands up, the cigarette burning on his lips. “C’est quoi?” he demanded.
The men didn’t answer. They rifled through his bathrobe for a weapon, which he insisted he didn’t have, and then shoved him into the kitchen. He was plopped down on a chair, surrounded by slouching men with blond hair and long legs.
“Qui est-vous?” he asked.
One of the men shook his head and took the cigarette from Pietro’s mouth, puffing on it himself. “So,” he said in thickly accented English, “you are the bomb-maker, yah?”
“The bomb-maker?” Pietro laughed nervously. What a ridiculous oversimplification. Bombs were dropped from planes. They fell onto garages and barns and schools, onto 60,000 French heads. These were bombs in the same way that a scalpel was a machete. But even so, there was something in the words that he liked. The bomb-maker, he repeated to himself.
“I’m a craftsman,” he said with glistening humility.
“Yes,” said the interrogator, who couldn’t have been forty, and whose blonde sideburns stopped at the corners of his mouth. What was his accent? Polish? Czech? “A craftsman who makes bombs, yah?” he went on.
“Oui,” said Pietro out of habit. “Yes—and you are?”
“You have made a very dangerous mistake, Monsieur Giavaldi,” said the man, shaking his head. “Sending out such weapons? Tipping delicate scales, upending ancient feuds? You may have changed the world, monsieur, and all it cost was, what, a few euros in postage?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say changed the world,” Pietro blushed.
“But here is the problem, monsieur,” said the man with the pistol. “While you were playing God, handing out fire as you please, you made some…sins of omission. You have…scorned the devil, perhaps. Cheated him of his due. Perhaps there are some names you left off your list. Perhaps an innocent mistake. You see, you send no gift to my family. To our enemies, yes. But to us? No. I would hate to think that you would arm the men who killed my father and give us no chance to…balance the scales? Yah?”
“Of course,” said Pietro, awkwardly. “An accidental omission, of course.”
“Of course,” said the man, smiling. He stuffed his pistol into the front of his tailored pants and hauled Pietro to his feet. His arms were like the arms of a bear. He could have probably broken Pietro over his knee, but instead, he brushed off his shoulders as though he’d accumulated dust since sitting down. “I knew it was. If you could just, what, look up criminals in the phone book, we wouldn’t be very good criminals, would we?”
Criminals. Another word that hung in Pietro’s ear as though hearing it for the first time. “I suppose not,” he said. “I truly am sorry for…for overlooking…”
“We are only human, no? But we are here to make amends. Go on, mon ami, show us where you make the bombs. Is it here?” he gestured around the sparsely furnished room and the other men gave suspicious glances to the cabinets, the floor, the television. “Perhaps an underground bunker?” the man suggested pointedly. “Or a…woodshed?” his steel blue eyes moved to the window, to the shop beyond.
Until now, Pietro had no intensions of ever showing anyone where he’d made his discovery, or where he’d conducted his experiments, where he’d—he was almost giddy with the thought—changed the world with just a few euros for postage. The explosive components themselves were quite cheap, though it’s not like he’d ever tell anyone that. All you really needed was—
“Don’t be shy,” said the intruder, smiling. There was a scar on his lips, thick and white, only visible when he showed his teeth. “You’re a genius, mon ami. We’re admirers of yours. Friends.” He put a hand on Pietro’s arm.
Pietro felt a little proud of that. And everyone had put away their guns, which made him feel safer. Their hostility had just been one big misunderstanding. Whoever this man’s father was, clearly they didn’t hold him to blame for his death. They weren’t here for revenge. They were here for what he could give them. Fire from the gods. Power.
“How did you find me?” he asked, and the blonde man reached into his pocket and drew out one of Pietro’s business cards. It was spattered with two brown drops that he at first mistook for coffee, before he remembered that blood lost its red color after a while.
“You were a difficult man to track down,” said the man. “But you have fine taste. Only a few places in the country carry paper of this kind. Do not be embarrassed. I too like nice things.” He straightened the collar of his blazer as he spoke. “When I realized the danger my taste for fine things posed, I had to kill my tailor. He was a gifted man. Truly regrettable.”
He smiled, and Pietro, despite everything, shivered. He led them through the back door to his shop, where he told them all to please not touch anything. Two men stayed outside the door with their hands folded over their pistols. The other two followed him in, their leader with an encouraging hand on Pietro’s shoulder.
The shop was clearly not what they expected. Pietro hadn’t been inside of any other bomb-maker’s facilities, but he imagined that they were a good deal more on-brand than his.
The tall man looked around, taking in the crowded shelves, the coffee pot, the flickering lamps, the chemical-stained sink, the racks of drying paper hung up like tired ghosts. He paused beside Pietro’s workbench and bent forward, squinting at the old typewriter that sat there.
“Is this it?” he asked.
“No,” said Pietro, “that’s just…regular paper. Some notes I was writing for my manual. Please, try not to touch anything, oui? For your own safety, my friends. For all of us.”
“I’ve seen what your little invention can do first-hand,” said the leader, walking slow circles. “It’s quite beautiful. You are an artist, mon ami.”
“Why thank you, I—” Pietro began, but he stopped when the visitor paused in front of the squat refrigerator and pulled it open. “Careful,” he insisted. “It’s stable enough, but storing it at a cool temperature preserves the life of the combustibles.”
“Of course,” said man, smiling warmly. He shut the door again. “Don’t let us waste too much of your time, monsieur. We’re here to make a simple exchange. We’ll take everything you have.”
“Everything?” said Pietro, stunned and almost offended.
“Everything,” the man nodded. “We can’t have you selling any more to our competitors, can we? No, this time we will have the upper hand.” He gestured toward Pietro. “This time, we will have you.”
“Me,” said Pietro breathlessly.
The tall stranger walked up to him and placed a hand on either shoulder. His voice was almost brotherly. “Together, mon ami, you and I will change everything. Nothing will be impossible. With your mind—” he tapped the inventor’s forehead with his finger— “and my mind together, the world will bend before us. You are the new Einstein, monsieur. Europe is clay in our hands. After that, well…”
Pietro felt lightheaded. He hadn’t expected anything to happen so soon, nor on this magnitude. It wasn’t the plan. He’d expected to be patient, to wait out months or years. But here was a patron. A believer. A supporter. A brother. A purpose.
He could feel his heart racing. He laughed and the tall man laughed back, the scar whitening. Another slap on the shoulder, stinging his skin.
Another man, in a gray suit, drew a book from Pietro’s shelf. There was a scarlet bookmark in it that he turned to, but when he did, he found that both of the opposing pages were blank. What good was a blank book? Perhaps it was some kind of journal, he thought. He turned the bookmark over, but it was blank as well, apart from the tiny golden initials P.G.
Pietro saw him. Saw him sliding the bookmark back into the spine. Saw him preparing to return it to the shelf. But there was no time to shout, no time to grab it from his hands. There was no time at all. The book snapped closed.
The bookmark started it. Then the paper on the desk took off, followed by the paper drying on the racks, then the stacks cooling in the fridge. It went up like a fireball, like some forty year old bomb had been lying dormant all this time and only just went off.
That’s what the official report read, in fact.
There was some confusion about the bodies recovered from the scene—two men whose identities were impossible to determine, not in the least because the damage was so extensive. The shop walls were obliterated, the only thing left of it the twisted wreckage of a typewriter lying on its side in the yard, while the farmhouse, with its restored shutters and yellow flowers, went up all at once in a cloud of black smoke.
Firemen and neighbors crowded around in shock, drawn by the smoke and the shattering of windows for blocks around. Nobody knew exactly what they were seeing, or more importantly, what they’d come so close to seeing instead. Who used to live here? Someone asked. Nobody was quite sure. Some unlucky man who kept mostly to himself, who could have been anybody, really, who could’ve done anything, who could’ve changed the world in some way. Only now, thank goodness, he couldn’t.